The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 240 to 231
240. “Doctor My Eyes,” Jackson Browne. Songwriter: Jackson Browne; #8 pop; 1972. Jackson Browne had already established a reputation as an up and comping songwriter before releasing his 1972 debut album, his material had been covered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt, among others. “Doctor My Eyes,” a tale about an aging man who has seen so much pain that it no longer registers with him, was his biggest pop hit until 1982’s “Somebody’s Baby.” The piano driven melody takes the listener’s attention away from the dour subject matter on “Doctor My Eyes,” which was covered by The Jackson 5 later in 1972. Sign of the times instrumentation – the conga break. Browne benefitted from friends in high places, David Crosby and Graham Nash sang harmony on the chorus.
239. “A Teenager in Love,” Dion and the Belmonts. Songwriters: Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman; #5 Pop; 1959. Doc Pomus gave the world one of the most memorable couplets in pop music history on this classic love is pain single: “Each night I ask the stars up above/Why must I be a teenager in love?” (During the mid-1980s, a Boston punk act named The Dogmatics changed the question to “Why must I be a teenager on drugs?”). Author Alex Halberstadt making an unexpected comparison, “’A Teenager in Love’ opened with a jangling guitar and the Belmonts ‘ooh-ooh-wah-oohs.’ At the very moment they gave way to Dion’s plangent vocal, the song slipped the bounds of teenage pop and reached for an authentically adult emotion. Dion idolized Hank Williams. Despite the kid’s rough-trade exterior, he sang with an arresting, almost feminine emotiveness. His haunting delivery enunciated with his Alabama-by-way-of-the-Bronx twang, was the closest Dion would come to matching the heartbreak of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ It may not have been their very first hit, but songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman knew it was the first distinctive, fully deliberate song they’d written. The juxtaposition of Mort’s lush, deceptively simple, essentially upbeat melody and Doc’s tormented, ruminative lyric – a delicious sweet-and-sour dissonance – became a template for their best work.”
238. “The Road Goes on Forever,” Joe Ely. Songwriter: Robert Earl Keen; Did Not Chart; 1992. Joe Ely alternated between releases on MCA Records and independent labels during the 1990s and had his most mainstream country contemporary production on the 1992 “Love and Danger” album, courtesy of Nashville bigwig Tony Brown. Ely cut the definitive version of Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” for that album, a story song about two small town losers (a slutty waitress and a small time pot dealer) who hit the road for an adventure that went awry. The scorecard at the end of the tune – one dead cop, one man on death row, and a lady with a new Mercedes Benz. Songwriter Robert Earl Keen, “The Sonny and Sherry characters are based on real characters that just couldn’t stay out of trouble. No matter what happened, no matter what fortune fell on them, they would screw that up. That’s where it started from.” This violent tale has been covered by Jack Ingram, the Highwaymen, and namechecked in Todd Snider’s “Beer Run,” perhaps as validation that the party never ends.
237. “Blue Monday,” Fats Domino. Songwriter: Dave Bartholomew; #5 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. “Blue Monday” was first recorded by Smiley Lewis in 1953, but his account of the workweek blues failed to chart. By 1956, Domino had perfected his New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll sound, combining a strong rhythm section with swaying saxophone notes and his warm, comforting vocal style. Rolling Stone, “Domino’s version remains faithful to the original, though his charming delivery makes the R&B cut feel even more youthful and celebratory, especially as he hits the song’s end where the protagonist leaves the work week behind to go ‘out on the stand to play.’ According to Domino’s biographer Rick Coleman, ‘Blue Monday’ was the singer’s favorite song.” Elvis Presley, showing his respect in 1957, “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
236. “My Life,” Iris Dement. Songwriter: Iris Dement; Did Not Chart; 1994. Iris Dement had family roots in rural Greene County, Arkansas, where her parents farmed an island on the St. Francis River, but was primarily raised in Southern California. Dement wrote her first song at the age of 25, penning the wistful “Our Town” about a dying community. She was signed to Warner Brothers Records for her 1994 Nashville recorded “My Life” album. However, the label was smart enough not to try to put her unique talent in the Music City assembly line production mode; she continued to deliver her country/gospel sound with serious emotional themes. The title track is as moving a song as you will ever hear – Dement notes the relative insignificance of an individual human life as compared to the scope and history of the universe. Then, she discovers her own self worth, not in the approval of a higher power, but in giving her mother joy, making her lover smile, and providing comfort to friends when they are hurting. Iris concludes that she “can make it seem better for a while” and her discovery that the examined life is worth living sounds like mankind’s noblest gift.
235. “Summertime Blues,” Eddie Cochran. Songwriters: Eddie Cochran, Jerry Capehart; #8 pop/#11 R&B; 1958. Eddie Cochran dropped out of his Los Angeles high school to pursue music and gave the world several 1950’s classics including the smoochin’ “Sittin in the Balcony,” the huffin’ “Twenty Flight Rock,” the partyin’ “C’mon Everybody,” as well as the seasonal sufferin’ of “Summertime Blues.” Cochran’s teenage ambitions were thwarted in all directions on “Summertime Blues,” to include working long hours that conflicted with his romantic life, being unable to borrow the family car, and having no political clout as someone too young to vote. Author John Collis, “’Summertime Blues’ is built of the simplest music ingredients, assembled with genius. Cochran elects to stress the chord structure (there are as many as three of them) by preferring his Martin to his Gretsch. Connie “Guybo” Smith is plugged in, however, pinning the song to his snarling bass line, and (drummer) Earl Palmer drives it along with rifle-shot precision. The chosen tempo is perfect – fast enough to let it rock, slow enough to allow the tale of teenage frustration time to brew in the listener’s mind.” Cochran’s bass singing used when voicing authority figures was inspired by the character of George “Kingfish” Stevens from the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio and television series.
234. “Gold Soundz,” Pavement. Songwriter: Stephen Malkmus; Did Not Chart; 1994. “Gold Soundz” is such a beautifully constructed guitar song, and Stephen Malkmus sings with such conviction, that the lyrics, which are all about images that can’t be tied to a specific narrative, become somewhat irrelevant. Rolling Stone, “All the boyish heart-on-sleeve urgency of ‘Pet Sounds’ packed into three minutes. Stephen Malkmus and his slack-ass crew don’t waste a second of this song – every guitar twang, every breathy mumble fits into a note-perfect emotional surge. Almost like they care or something.” Pitchfork, in naming “Gold Soundz” the best song of the 1990s, “It sounded like a memory in the best possible way. The first two words are ‘go back,’ and that’s exactly what it does: It was easy, light, and tinged with nostalgia, with a radiant guitar tone and drums that float along, joyously uncommitted. Some of the lyrics match the music’s wistfulness (‘so drunk in the August sun’ is the one many remember, because it sounds like the first line of good yarn), but Stephen Malkmus always did like a good puzzle, so there are cryptic lines that hint at uncertainty, confusion, and doubt, too. But this song feels especially hard to pull apart; everything seems to fuse together.”
233. “Rockaway Beach,” The Ramones. Songwriters: Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Tommy Ramone; #66 pop; 1977. The Ramones’ great gift to the world was providing a psychological safety zone for a generation of misfits who intrinsically knew that conformity was neither a valid goal or a viable option. They provided a haven not just as a gathering place for outcasts, but also as a beautiful celebration of the power of eccentricity. While the Ramones didn’t look like surfer dudes, their biggest stateside pop hit was the Beach Boys updated for the punk era with this ode to their local Atlantic Ocean gateway. Although credited to the entire band, generally this is known as a Dee Dee Ramone composition – dig deeper and you’ll find he’s one of rock music’s truly underappreciated songwriters. Rock critic Gina Boldman, “The imagery puts you right in the middle of a hot New York summer in the mid- to late ’70s, and it’s easy to feel as jubilant as the song does.” When Joey announces that he’s “chewing out a rhythm on my bubblegum,” he could be referring to literal gum smacking or saluting one of the genres of music that he loved.
232. “Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder. Songwriter: Stevie Wonder; #8 pop/#1 R&B; 1973. “Living for the City,” a commentary on generational poverty and systemic racism, is constructed like a movie, with a plotline skit that reinforces the tragedy of the lyrics. Wonder played all the instruments on the song, using synthesizers for the bassline and for the lead/fills. He also served as his own background chorus. Co-engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff purposefully upset Wonder by stopping the session and insulting his singing to get the hoarse, angry vocals at the end of the song. Wonder, on is nature versus nurture essay, “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living for the City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”
231. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” The Righteous Brothers. Songwriters: Phil Spector, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil; #1 pop/#2 R&B; 1964. Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers had a question for Phil Spector regarding his chorus only role in this song, “’What am I supposed to do while the big guy’s singing?” Spector replied, “’You can go to the bank.” Bill Medley had his own reservations, “At first, none of us thought it was a hit. When Phil played it for (songwriter) Barry Mann over the phone, Barry yelled, ‘Phil, Phil, you’ve got it on the wrong speed!’ He thought it was being mistakenly played at 33 1/3 instead of 45 rpm – and so did some of the distributors.” Despite those reservations “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” has been played on radio and television more than any other song in history. Barry Mann once reflected on Phil Spector’s contribution, “For the bridge, Phil experimented on the piano with a ‘Hang On Sloopy’ riff. It was brilliant. I built a melody on the riff while Cynthia shouted out lyrics: ‘Baby, baby, I get down on my knees for you’ and so on. (Spector) said he had tears in his eyes when he heard Cynthia’s line, ‘Something beautiful’s dying.” Author Sean MacLeod, describing the work of the vocalists on top of the dramatic Wall of Sound, “Medley’s baritone, unusual for pop music, which tended to have lead vocals in the upper registers, gave the song a deep masculine soulfulness. Hatfield’s tenor/falsetto provided the energy to elevate the song towards its epic crescendo, while the contrasting vocal ranges of the middle section added greater dimension and significantly helped expand the song’s dynamic range.” The booming ambience and Medley’s testifying delivery also had an impact on Brian Wilson, whose goal when writing “Good Vibrations” was to top this recording.